When I was in Russia in the very early 1990s, there was a generic figure who seemed to stand at the entrance to every metro station: an ancient babushka in a headscarf and tatty coat, face creased with age and weather, holding out a flimsy plastic bag rolled into a little triangle, begging for kopeks. The collapse of communism had its winners and its losers – and these old women were the losers. The ‘social umbrella’ of the necrotic Soviet system may have provided its pensioners with a miserable existence, as a local explained it to me, but it had provided; and these women, having discovered that freedom is all very well but you can’t buy food with it, could be forgiven for pining for Uncle Joe and his grey-hatted successors. When I went back 10 or 15 years later, Moscow’s great grey boulevards were being colonised by designer outlets and glittering restaurants – but outside the metro stations, the babushki were still there. That, pace social media leftists, is what being on the wrong side of history really looks like.
I think of these old ladies from time to time – and I’ve been thinking of them especially as the invasion of Ukraine gets our tribal blood up. Russkiy Standart is removed from bars and chicken kievs are renamed by PR-savvy supermarkets. Visa, Mastercard, Apple, Ikea and any number of other western companies are refusing to operate in Russia. We watch with something like glee as the rouble tumbles to new lows against the dollar and Russian banks look close to collapsing. When Putin says it looks like an act of war – well, he’s onto something there. It is.
I stop short of thinking that the punitive sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia are wrong. They make it much harder for Mr Putin to fund his war – and if there’s another way of achieving that I’ve yet to see anyone suggest it. But the collateral damage is not to be handwaved away. Many, many millions of ordinary Russians – who have no control over their government’s policy and very little understanding of what it even is – will be profoundly immiserated by the West’s decision to do everything it can to crash their country’s economy. You could see it like chemotherapy: essentially, you poison the whole organism in the hopes that the cancer dies first. If you’re lucky it works, but it makes the patient a whole lot sicker before they get well.
‘Serves Russia right,’ you might think. But which Russia? Putin’s Russia is layered. It isn’t a monolith. There’s the bad man in the Kremlin, there are the thugs and time-servers in the military and security apparatus, there are his enablers in the Duma, and there are the globe-trotting oligarchs. And none of these groups has anything much at all to do with the poor bloody infantry, aka your man on the Leningradsky Omnibus.
We’re making a big show here of going after oligarchs – the most visible and, because we’ve indulged their dirty money for so long, most embarrassing of Russia’s informal ambassadors. Hard to feel all that much sympathy with them, obviously: you don’t come out of post-Soviet Russia a billionaire without having been just a bit on the rob. Yet all that headline-grabbing bluster about summarily seizing their property (due process be damned) are more about belatedly keeping house and saving face than stopping the war. Ever since Putin’s little chat with them 20 years ago, the oligarchs have stayed out of politics by design. They keep their money at his pleasure, rather than keeping him in power (as they did Yeltsin) at theirs.
The semi-anonymous hard cases who actually hold (or affirm) Putin’s political power are not such low-hanging fruit. Will they care that their blingier countrymen’s wings have been clipped? Maybe, and maybe not. But you can be pretty sure that Mr Putin’s priority with what money remains to him (and as long as we’re still buying his gas, there’ll be a bit floating about) will be seeing them right; and their stars, in any case, are so hitched to his wagon that it’s hard to see how they might set about ditching the captain. Some of them will get an even firmer grip on power if Putin responds to sanctions by retrenching his local totalitarianism. They may well think it better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.
So will wrecking Russia’s economy with sanctions, as some seem to think, precipitate a vast popular uprising? We can certainly hope so, but I wouldn’t be so confident. ‘Overthrow your violently repressive leader or we’ll starve you out’ isn’t the most seductive pitch. And it seems just as possible – not least because Russia’s press is so wretchedly unfree and the sources of independent information about the war within Russia so limited – that it will have the opposite effect.
The West is trying to break us in defence of the Ukrainian fascists, state media will say. The West did this to you, they will say. ‘Very well then: alone,’ to borrow Churchill’s phrase. People get patriotic when they feel persecuted. The letter Z (lifted from invading Russian tanks) is already spreading across Russia as a symbol of support for the invasion. To us, it looks like a memeified swastika, but those wearing it don’t think they’re the baddies. Reports we read from inside Russia indicate that even many educated people remain supportive of Putin.
Countries that feel hard done by, countries that feel bullied, countries that experience deep hardship and see that hardship crystallise into resentment… history seems to show that those countries will be more, rather than less, prone to cling to authoritarian strongmen singing simple patriotic songs. And meanwhile, outside the metro station, that babushka will still be there, pleading for kopeks in the thin wind. Let’s at least keep her in mind.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.